Show, Don’t Tell: Activities for Image-Driven Writing

Today’s students must be able to learn and express themselves in myriad ways, yet reading, writing, and speaking remain the primary vehicles. Thus, language arts still holds a premiere spot in the middle level curriculum as the subject that connects all other content areas.This month, veteran educator Carol Baldwin offers activities to help students bring more life to their writing by showing rather than just telling, by creating images in their readers’ minds. Carol also suggests ways the show don’t tell writing strategy can be incorporated across the curriculum.Kathy Powenski, a retired English/Language Arts teacher, shares her tried-and-true ways to keep students focused when their minds turn from school work to summer break. From reading to students to having students recite poems and peer review their classmates’ writing, you will have your students, attention despite spring fever.Also of note as you look for ways to expand your English/Language Arts curriculum, is a resource from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the National Council of Teachers of English. The 21st Century Skills and English Map is a framework that provides educators with teacher-created models of how 21st century skills can be infused into English classes. The map includes lesson examples that combine core skills like critical thinking, creativity and innovation with interdisciplinary themes (civic, economic and entrepreneurial literacy and global awareness), as well as concrete examples of how to align teaching and learning to the demands of the 21st century. Visit for more information.Which story would you like to read? One that begins like this:

One day, Sharon, who is 11 and in the sixth grade, got up to get ready for school. Sharon likes soccer, comic books, and rap, and she hates cleaning her room. When she can’t find her knee pads because she’s so disorganized, she gets worried about getting to the state championship game on time.Or, this one:

Sharon lay on her floor pulling stuff out from underneath her bed. Out flew her math book, last year’s fifth-grade report on reptiles, some old CD cases, and a few Doonesbury comic books. ‘Where are those stupid knee pads?’ she muttered. How was she going to help win the state championship if she couldn’t find her knee pads?Why is example number two more compelling? Because writing that shows, not tells, brings a character and a scene to life; it uses verbs and nouns to add specific details and creates images in the reader’s mind; it adds vim and vigor by using accurate similes and metaphors. And, writing that shows, not tells, is also more fun to read and write.

How do you teach your students this cardinal rule of writing? How do you train your students to replace narrative writing that simply chronicles events with lively writing that brings events to life?

Use three role models that your students look to every day: authors, you, and their peers.

Students Learn from the Best

Consider the following example from Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed:

The day was hot. Steamy. Janina and I were down near the entrance to the cemetery, on Gesia Street. We were watching the long parade of wagons lined up at the gate. The wagons were pulled by men-horses. The bodies were in heaps. The number of them was much higher than I could count at the time. A peppery cloud of flies hovered over the flopped arms and legs. The air buzzed.Only a few living people came with the wagons. Except for the rags they wore and the fact that they were standing, they looked like the bodies. (p. 138)

In this vivid description of the Warsaw Ghetto, Spinelli not only shows the reader what Misha, the main character, sees (parade of wagons, the men-horses, heaps of dead bodies, a cloud of flies, the barely alive living), but helps the reader feel the heat and hear the flies buzzing. Spinelli’s metaphors and similes paint a vivid picture for the reader.

Select a paragraph from a novel or story that your students are reading. Ask students to identify the specific verbs, nouns, similes, or metaphors the author used to paint a word picture.

Next, ask students to rewrite the paragraph, substituting general nouns and verbs and eliminating the author’s vivid details. Students can also begin each sentence with “it” or “and then” and never vary the sentence length. They soon will recognize their own non-descriptive writing.

Students Learn from You

Write a simple sentence on the board such as “The boy ate his lunch.” You could make the boy small and the lunch delicious to add a few details, but the writing should be vague and uninteresting. How can the writer jazz this up?

Ask the class to use more specific nouns and verbs without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. For example, by replacing boy with toddler, refugee, or skater dude; substituting eat with devoured, savored, or picked at; and choosing a cheeseburgerbread crust, or chicken leg, the writer creates a more specific image.

Similarly, ask the students to think of a simile or metaphor that would make this character memorable. Writing, “The toddler devoured the bread crust like a wolf gobbling down a rabbit” is almost as clear as a photograph.

The goal of this activity is to enhance the sentence without losing its basic meaning. Your students might enjoy ending up with, “The tiger inhaled the monkey” but they will have lost the point of this exercise.

Encourage students to play with adjectives but not rely on them. In the Milkweed example, Spinelli didn’t need to modify the word heaps. Making the cloud of flies peppery, however, enhanced the image.

As you model this, your students will see that the writing process is not stagnant. Good writers search for the best word to convey their meaning without settling for vague, inaccurate descriptions. In fact, to arrive at show, don’t tell writing, writers must often travel through many rounds of revision.

Students Learn from Each Other

With a partner, each student writes one or two “blah” sentences about a character or a setting. Partners must “jazz it up” by including specific sensory information that allows the reader to see, feel, or hear the person or place.

For example, a student could write “The driver honked the horn. He was impatient for the traffic to move.” His partner could change it to “The teenager blared the VW’s horn. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, leaned out the window, and yelled ‘Can you move any slower?'”

Repeat this activity with different partners or in small groups. In a group, students pass their boring sentences to the person sitting next to them. That student crosses out just one noun or verb and replaces it with a more vivid word or phrase before passing it along to the next person for further revision.

Give students several minutes to complete this activity and ask the last person to add a simile or metaphor. Allow the sentence to return to the original writer so students can see how their writing was revised and “jazzed up.”

In the End

You can incorporate these simple activities into your lesson plans for writing fiction or poetry or into your writing workshops for any grade level. Students will also have fun practicing show, don’t tell writing in their expository pieces. For example, if your students are studying the Revolutionary War in their social studies class, ask them to compose some simple boring sentences. Perhaps one student volunteers “The soldier shot the enemy who fell down dead.” After requesting that students supply specific details, this sentence could end up being “The British Lieutenant aimed his Brown Bess musket at the approaching blue coat. With accuracy born of years of practice, his shot started with a loud roar and ended with the young Boston lad keeled over as blood gushed from his stomach.”

Similarly, show, don’t tell writing can beef up boring science reports. “I thought the chemical reaction was strange” could be transformed into “The gray liquid steamed and bubbled, and I smelled an odor like rotten eggs emitting from the beaker.”

As students replace helping verbs with vivid verbs and add image-driven adjectives, appropriate similes, or dynamite metaphors, they will notice that their writing grabs the reader by the collar and doesn’t let go.

Show, Don’t Tell Technology
Ask a student to come up to the SMART Board and write a boring, blah sentence. Using a red marker, another student strikes through pronouns and replaces them with specific nouns. A third student then uses class input and a blue marker to strike through the helping verb and replace it with a vivid verb. For example, discuss the different nuances of substituting jogged, skipped, plodded, or slithered for walked. Have a third volunteer replace overused adjectives such as awesome or cool using another colored marker.Microsoft Word
In the computer lab, ask your students to open up a Word document. Point out the strikethrough function. In Word 2007, it is the abc button with the line through it in the Font menu; in Word 19972003, select Font from the Format menu, and check Strikethrough under Effects. You can also have students make all of their strikethrough edits in red or another distinct color.

Play Jazz It Up by telling students to type two copies of two to three boring sentences. Label one Original and one Revision. Ask students to get up and move one computer over where they will have the opportunity to use the strikethrough and red font functions on their friend’s text. Instead of deleting a word they want to change, instruct them to cross it out and add a word in red.

When they’re done revising their peers’ sentenceswithout changing the meaning of the sentencethey then return to their own seat and read how their friend revised their work.

To see how you can use a wiki to reinforce these same concepts, go to my wiki at:

You will need a pbwiki account to view my wiki. If you don’t already have a pbwiki account, consider signing up for one (you’ll be glad you didwikis have wide classroom applications.)

After you have looked at the Sample Activity, click on Student Samples to see a few examples. Students who have Internet access at home can go back online and play with their sentences for another round of “Jazz It Up” revision. (Note: You will be unable to edit these pages, this is for demonstration purposes only.)

In addition to reinforcing Show, Don’t Tell concepts, students who have written and revised sentences using these technologies have practiced keyboarding skills, focused on vocabulary, and used critical thinking to evaluate writing. More importantly, through technology, they have seen that revision can be fun.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2009